A truly massive gathering of the city's elite today took inthe surreal spectacle of Mayor London Breed and Marc Benioff firing verbal cannonades at one another from opposite stages. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

The 2018 Silver SPUR Awards Luncheon was held in a big room. A comically big room. The walk down the hall to the restrooms must have been 150 yards; it felt like a gag lifted from a Noël Coward farce set in an oversize baronial manor.

Not only was the room at Moscone Center West big, it was full of big shots — 1,600 of them. San Francisco’s elected officials and high-level bureaucrats and captains of industry and developers and all the lobbyists and expediters who grease the gears of the city’s machinery were on hand.

They took in a hell of a show.

For the record, the honorees today were The Rev. Harry Chuck, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, Anita Friedman and Greg Moore (the latter is the president and CEO of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which explains why pale-green-uniformed park rangers dotted the crowd of blazers-and-no-ties and fancy dresses).

That was the event … but it wasn’t the event. The drama today was in the undercard: Mayor London Breed and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff giving back-to-back speeches beforehand. The two have found themselves on opposite sides of the political battle over Prop. C, which would tax the city’s highest-grossing businesses at up to 0.5 percent after their first $50 million in the can, and could bring in $300 million a year for homeless and housing services.

Breed is against it. Benioff is for it — and has, all but single-handedly, funded the Yes on C effort and been its most visible backer.

San Francisco is a town that’s lousy with symbolism these days. This is the costliest town in America, serving as bedroom and playground for some of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs and their workforces — and yet human misery is all too apparent on every street corner. The city’s elite, in their finery, hop-scotched over human effluvia and over sleeping men and women to attend today’s grilled chicken-with-pita bread-and-dolmas-and-tabouleh-and-hummus-in-a-red-cabbage-bowl event.

Once there, they saw the city’s mayor and its No. 1 private employer on different sides of San Francisco’s most fraught and pressing issue, speaking from different stages, facing one another, across the vast expanse of a teeming ballroom packed with the city’s elites.

Well that’s a bit on the nose.

Mayor London Breed today effectively subtweeted Prop. C and its backers. Photo by Mallory Newman.

Breed was first up, speaking from the South stage. Unlike so many of her predecessors occupying City Hall Room 200, she was punctual. The mayor, who is a gifted public speaker, was focused, austere in her words, and brief. Throughout her short but loaded speech about homelessness, she did not mention Prop. C once; she was, essentially subtweeting Benioff and his table full of allies seated on the far end of the room.

She opened by noting her efforts to take on San Francisco’s most pressing situation, highlighting the legislation easing conservatorship of mentally ill drug addicts to be introduced to the Board of Supervisors today. She noted that “everyone in this room” would, surely, tackle the city’s homeless problem. But, she said slowly, “It takes more than just money.” She recounted the tale of a homeless couple she shepherded into a Navigation Center, only for them to bounce within a day. She brought up the pain of seeing her childhood neighbors stumbling through the Tenderloin. “I have seen the failure of false promises,” she said.

This city, she continued, has doubled its homeless budget over the past decade. But, in the same time period, the homeless biannually counted on our streets have risen. In our 2007 point-in-time count, 6,377 homeless people were tallied. In 2017, that number was 6,986.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a new result,” she said, continuing to unsubtly drop No on C talking points.

If you wanted to cherry-pick the data to make San Francisco’s efforts look as piss-poor as possible, this is what you would do. That should have been a bit surprising and, writ large, perhaps it is. But this has become a pattern of late.

The mayor could’ve noted that other West Coast cities have experienced double-digit explosions in their homeless counts or she could’ve cited the thousands and thousands of people who’ve been permanently housed. But she didn’t. Once again, Mayor Breed, opposing a tax on our city’s highest-grossing businesses to double the homeless service budget, has gone out of her way to emphasize this city’s ineptitude. 

The mayor’s short speech was politely received, and then everyone craned their necks over to the North side of the room, where Benioff was standing, perhaps 50 yards away. Unlike Breed, who was business-like, the business titan was loose and genial; he oozed that “Drink up! It’s paid for!” vibe of a father of the bride. Unlike the mayor, he also went long with his speech. Way, way long.

And why not? It is paid for. He paid for it. There was a table full of Yes on C swag in the lobby and plenty of literature; as of Oct. 30, Benioff has dropped $2 million into the Yes on C fight, and Salesforce has disgorged almost $6 million more.

“I’m soooo happy to be here. And I’m soooo happy this isn’t Dreamforce,” he said to scattered laughter. Benioff went out of his way to laud the day’s honorees and also Breed for her “leadership and dedication.”

Benioff came to bury Caesar and praise her.

He also came to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He asked if the gathered swells had noticed homeless people “outside this very building. Did you see them today? I did.”

“Look into their eyes,” he continued. “They are suffering. Right here in this city. They are not strangers. They are our neighbors.”

Not only are our neighbors suffering, Benioff said, so is this city’s reputation. “National publications are running headlines and photos of our garbage-strewn streets,” he said. “I get e-mails. From the 170,000 people who were just here for Dreamforce. They can’t believe they have to step over human feces. Here in San Francisco! Is this the image we want to project to the world? I ask each of you.”

He decried this city’s “crisis of inequality,” with “many of the nation’s most successful corporations, like mine, headquartered not far from this building.” The hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth generated by these companies “are kept inside their buildings. It does not trickle down.” San Francisco is a city of “glittering wealth alongside shocking poverty.”

The street scenes we have grown inured to “oughta break our hearts.” The burden of alleviating this city’s misery, he said, was not Mayor Breed’s alone. “The business of business cannot just be business.” Ascendant, wealthy companies, he said, must “give back, not just in terms of well-intentioned philanthropy but in scale — in scale of the wealth they created on the back of this city.”

Human misery and overt drug-use, Benioff said, have become the symbols of this city, supplanting our crooked streets and orange bridges. “When,” he asked “are we going to say enough is enough? And that’s why I’m supporting Proposition C.”

The mention, by name, of the ballot measure, after a good half an hour of unsubtle subtlety from Breed and Benioff, hit like a jolt. Benioff had named the Ballot Measure That Must Not Be Named.

So he did it again. Loudly. And cornily, saying the “C” stood for “Charitable.”

Benioff, by this time, had blown away any semblance of a schedule; he went long on an Academy Awards-like scale and there was nobody to play him off.

He bemoaned his fellow billionaires who couldn’t see fit to pony up “immaterial” amounts of money to quell this city’s existential problems. He mentioned, by name, the multigenerational, family-owned San Francisco businesses of the past — Wells Fargo, Levi Strauss, The Gap — whose leaders reached into their pockets to help out their city. He mentioned, by name, the homeless service providers Prop. C opponents have intimated are failing this city — Hamilton Families, Larkin Street Youth, Glide, and others.

“We can be a great city again,” Benioff promised. And he got a hell of a round of applause when all was said and done. He sat back down at his table; two seats down, Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jenny Friedenbach got up, beaming, and planted a kiss on his cheek.

After that speech, and before the honorees were even honored, a portion of the crowd decamped for whatever came next. They wandered past the cavernous antechambers where black-tied servers piled up mounds of half-eaten tabouleh and cabbage, descended several sets of king-sized escalators, and wandered into a perfect San Francisco afternoon.

The well-dressed wandered past the ragged, the desperate, the miserable. As one does.

It oughta break our hearts.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. While absolute numbers and percentages may have increased (according to numbers stated) the actual homeless population compared to population growth within SF is significantly lower between 2007 and 2017, even considering the housing crisis. Not just that, it has is even lower than it was in 2004 (we would be in negative percentages if we calculated just three years earlier), and that is coupled with the budget increase. SF grew 14% in ten years in total population compared to 8% over ten years growth in the homeless population. Los Angeles’ own population grew by 23% in a single year and more than 50% in 6 years. While other west coast cities are double percentage points, we’ve held back any significant increase. The total percentage of the homeless population within SF was about .8% in 2007 and .7% in 2017. Breed is either misleading or completely missing the actual numbers, the budget can only better help the situation.

  2. In addition to Breed’s omissions you cited, the increasing rate of evictions, especially those in the Mission over the past decade, has also been a significant contributor to the creating homelessness. The skyrocketing housing costs and the high levels of homelessness are two sides of the same corrupt housing policy Breed inherited from her predecessors: Brown, Newsom and Lee. Too bad the national media can’t resist clickbait stories about Progressive SF and Human Waste. The last time the SF government was at all progressive was when Moscone was mayor. Didn’t last long.

  3. No on C .audit the homeless industrial complex. Not another dime should be wasted that will only bring more drug addicts to shit on our beautiful city

  4. Really nicely written. I do not agree with the slant against the Mayor’s position, which is absolutely valid. The existing programs are designed for failure so just adding more $ is not the answer. But, I enjoyed the read and felt like I was in the room.

  5. It isn’t ironic or anything that the DSA and the Homeless Coalition have a ……………. BILLIONAIRE savior. The people’s mogul indeed.

    1. Maybe. Back in the early 20th century many a capitalist looked at angry socialists and realized they’d have to temper the destruction of capitalism in order to survive. Organizing works!

  6. Ascendant, wealthy companies, he said, must “give back, not just in terms of well-intentioned philanthropy but in scale — in scale of the wealth they created on the back of this city.” Exactly! So well articulated.

  7. I appreciate the article. Thank you for the witty interpretation. Yes in C. Yes on Mayor Agnos’s proposal to help the homeless.

  8. Not really related to the article, but interesting that the Salesforce sponsored Our City Your Home site is misleading the public by conflating revenue with income/profits. The tax will be on gross receipts which is revenue and not income as the blurb below from the YCOH site states. An additional tax on revenue for unprofitable tech companies is a legitimate concern. Would you want to pay more in taxes if you made no money?

    “Only multi-million corporations making more than $50 million dollars will be impacted by this measure, and these are the same businesses that got corporate tax breaks from the Trump administration. Prop C is a variable tax, averaging ½ of a percent. Since it’s a variable tax, businesses with smaller margins get a smaller tax, and it only taxes income over $50 million. For example, if a business brings in $54 million, only $4 million of that would be taxed and for retail businesses, the tax is less than 2/10ths of a percent.”